September 29, 2012 in Business

Readers of digital books losing some privacy

Aisha Sultan McClatchy-Tribune

ST. LOUIS – Washington University law professor Neil M. Richards worries about a day when everyone knows what everyone else is reading.

From social reader apps, which automatically share what users are reading on Facebook, to tablets and e-reading devices, which store detailed reading data, the laws protecting individuals haven’t kept up with technology, he said.

Media reports from earlier this summer documented a sharp decline in the numbers of people using new social reader apps. The decline has continued for some, but the latest data also affirm some growth in select apps.

“The way we read is really changing,” Richards said. “It used to be we could go to a bookstore, with a $5 bill, and there would be no record that we had read that book.”

That kind of privacy does not exist on tablet devices such as the new Kindle Fire HD, which became available earlier this month.

Richards points out that when consumers read on devices such as the Kindle, “Amazon knows exactly who you are, all the books you have bought, what you are reading, what page you are on, which passages you’ve highlighted and how long it takes to read.”

Digital books now outsell paperbacks on, and more than 18 million e-readers are expected to be sold this year.

Corporations such as Amazon know much more than librarians ever did about individual reading habits. But unlike librarians, who are bound by professional ethics and dozens of statutes protecting individuals, companies are guided by privacy policies they write themselves, Richards said.

In a Wall Street Journal story, Amazon said that it collected data in aggregate, on group reading habits, not targeting individuals. The company, however, has declined to share how it analyzes and uses the Kindle data it gathers.

“If we give up our ability to read confidentially, we’ve lost a real freedom of belief and freedom of thought, which I believe are our most important civil liberties,” Richards said. At stake, he argues, is our intellectual privacy, which he defines as “our ability to read and think and make up our minds about what we think about the world without other people watching or hearing.”

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